"Fallingwater in Focus"

Fallingwater – a family affair for the Miners, too

For Mill Run resident Donna Miner, cherished family memories are intertwined with recollections of life on the grounds of a world-famous house. Her father, Ralph Miner, began working in maintenance at Fallingwater in 1945, moved with his family onto the property as its head caretaker a decade later, and lived and worked there until he retired in 1975. Donna Miner’s memories of Bear Run include the flood of 1956, flowers from Edgar Kaufmann, jr., and the dedication of the famous house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963.

Edgar Kaufmann jr.

Miner’s first visit to Fallingwater occurred around 1948. “The Kaufmanns had large freezers in their greenhouse basement, and Dad was allowed to keep our meat there,” she said. “One evening, he forgot to bring meat home for the following night’s dinner, which Mother needed, so he went back out and I went with him. While we were there, he drove down to Fallingwater so I could see the house. As a 10-year old, I was very impressed.”

A new – and famous – home

Following the death of Edgar Kaufmann, Sr. in 1955, Edgar Kaufmann, jr. asked Ralph Miner to move onto the grounds of Fallingwater and serve as caretaker. Ralph Miner and his wife, Leola, moved onto the property in 1956. They brought with them two of their four children: Donna, who had just graduated from high school, and her brother Kerwin, 7. The two oldest children, R.D. and Marlene, each had married and established their own households.

“It was wonderful living there,” Donna Miner said. “I used to take the dog on walks at night. I knew the night watchman was out – so no one would get me! We walked down by Bear Run, and I could hear the waterfall. It was so beautiful.”

For Ralph Miner, working at Fallingwater was all-consuming but rewarding. “He had a great deal of responsibility,” Donna Miner said. “In that first year, the ‘Big House’ – as Fallingwater was known by the staff – was being repainted, and Dad had the responsibility to get all of the scaffolds up. He typically had four to six men working for him, depending on what was needed on the property.”

The Caretakers House

During the holidays, Edgar Sr. (and later Edgar jr.) sent flowers from the greenhouse to his closest employees as well as gifts of money for their younger children. Donna remembers cyclamens arriving at Christmas and lilies at Easter.

Before the Kaufmanns purchased the property at Bear Run, it had been developed as a Masonic Country Club, which included a club house and cottages. The Miner family initially occupied a house that was attached to the club house, and Mr. Kaufmann allowed Leola to choose the interior paint colors. Donna remembers her mother choosing bright colors – although she wasn’t certain that would have been Mr. Kaufmann’s choice! “The house had a really nice, walled-in garden. The Kaufmanns’ secretary, Ethel Clinton Appel, whom everyone called ‘Miss Clinton,’ occupied another cottage. She would come over in the summer months and visit in the evening, and we would make homemade ice cream,” Miner said.

The 1956 Flood

Horse and Rider

Miner has vivid memories of the flood of 1956, which damaged the Fallingwater property. “It rained all day, and we could hear this roar, and here it was Bear Run,” she said. Ralph Miner left to check on Fallingwater and found the water to be so high that he had to back out and find a different route.

The Miner house, atop a hill, was fine – but for Fallingwater and much of Bear Run, it was a different story. “The road was washed out – from the grape arbor past the gardeners cottage, to beyond the swimming pool,” said Miner. Debris piled against the steps of Fallingwater and mud coated its living room and basement floors. Two valuable works of art were washed downstream during the storm. Lipchitz’s “Mother and Child” was recovered, but only a leg was found from Marino Marini’s “Horse and Rider.”

A Special Bond

Ralph Miner and Edgar Kaufmann, jr. were both born in April 1910 and as Donna recalled, the two men had a very comfortable relationship – even a bond. “On Friday evenings, Mr. Kaufmann would come to Fallingwater for the weekend. The next morning, he usually walked up to the maintenance building to talk to Dad. Or, he would come to the house and talk to Mom as well.”

By 1963, the Miner family moved into a new home at Bear Run – a house designed by Kaufmann jr. The old house next door was razed and its foundation became a large vegetable and flower garden. The new house still stands and today includes offices and a kitchen for Fallingwater’s cafè.

A Family Enterprise

Beyond Ralph Miner, several other family members – including Donna – worked at Fallingwater or on its grounds. When Donna’s mother, Leola, was a young child, Leola’s parents, George and Bess Skinner, had lived in a cottage on the property. George built a red barn on the property that is still used. Later, under Kaufmann ownership, George and his sons, Carl and Mac, painted the “Big House” and the greenhouse. Some of Ralph’s brothers and nephews assisted in Fallingwater’s construction and maintenance. While Ralph was the caretaker, Leola completed paperwork and answered the phone.

When the Conservancy began operating Fallingwater as a museum, Donna worked in the hospitality center. Her brother Kerwin worked at Fallingwater during summer breaks from college. Kerwin’s wife, Denise Miner, has been employed by Fallingwater for more than 20 years and currently serves as Public Tour Supervisor. “Donna and I were friends and horseback riding buddies long before I married her brother and we became sisters inlaw,” said Denise Miner.

The Dedication

Donna Miner recalled her earliest “job” at Fallingwater: “The Kaufmanns often had guests for long weekends. One weekend, all of the guest rooms were full and people were sleeping on sofas. I helped Elsie Harbaugh, the cleaning lady, make the beds in the evening. We turned them down and placed ice water and grapes at each bedside.” After her weekend’s work, she said, Mr. Kaufmann brought her an envelope with money and said, “Thank you for your welcome help.”

For Miner, the strangest aspect of life at Fallingwater was its public reputation, long before it opened to the public. “Everyone wanted to see it, of course. I guess I’d heard about it my whole life, and didn’t realize it was famous until later. People would come up to our door and ask to see the house – many times, day or night. Sometimes, people walked right into our house. They thought it was a visitors’ center. People even picnicked in our yard!”

The 1963 Dedication

In November 1963, Kaufmann jr. made the famous private residence a public resource when he entrusted it to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The day of the dedication, Miner recalled, was cold and cloudy. Many luminaries, including Pennsyvlania Governor William Scranton and his wife, were in attendance. Ralph Miner had gotten a new suit, chosen by Leola, for the special day. But once again, duty called. “The furnace at Fallingwater seemed to have a lot of problems. Just before the ceremony started, they called Dad and said the furnace was out. So he missed the dedication,” Donna Miner said. “He never complained, but I remember that he said, ‘What a time for the furnace to go out!’”

But that was the nature of his job at Fallingwater, she said, and Ralph Miner relished it. “He had his finger on the pulse of everything. He really enjoyed it.”

Donna Miner stays connected to Fallingwater as a volunteer for landscape tours and as an exhibit hostess. She also may be found removing invasive plants from the landscape.

2009 Members' Day and
Annual Meeting

WPC invites our members to celebrate what we’ve accomplished together. We’d also like to thank you for your loyal membership support.

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The Fallingwater Cookbook

The Fallingwater Cookbook takes readers into the kitchen of Fallingwater and the world of the Kaufmanns, who entertained many famous guests at their weekend retreat.

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